It's a strange, contradictory time for medical marijuana patients in the United States: a plant legally prescribed in one state might get you deemed an unfit parent in another - and cannabis continues to be used as grounds to embroil parents in state custody disputes. For veterans - a growing percentage of whom are treating PTSD with cannabis - hazy regulations surrounding medical marijuana use are further traumatizing their families.
Families lose custody
In January, honorably-discharged veteran Raymond Schwab and his wife, Amelia, described to the Denver Post their decision to move with their six children from Kansas to Denver in 2014 to treat Raymond's PTSD and chronic pain with medical cannabis.
As they were packing to leave, according to the Post story, Amelia's mother took the kids to a police station and reported them abandoned. Amelia says her mother now regrets that decision, but it set off a chain of events that the family is coping with to this day.
After police found legally-prescribed cannabis in their home, the children became wards of the state. According to the Schwabs, it's now been nine months since the incident - and CPS and a Kansas judge are requiring four months of cannabis-free urinalysis tests to get their kids back.
"People who don't understand the medical value of cannabis are tearing my family apart," the Kansas father told the Guardian. Schwab has a legal prescription for marijuana in Colorado.
The Schwab case, while unusual, is not unique. In 2014, Kristoffer Lewandowski - Iraq and Afghanistan vet and father of three - was charged with felony cultivation after Oklahoma police recovered six plants from the family's home in Geronimo. Under Oklahoma's harsh anti-drug laws, Lewandowski is now looking at a maximum sentence of life in prison. In 2013, a family from southern California sued the City of Coronado for taking their children because the father, a Gulf War vet, legally smoked medical marijuana.
Cannabis use among vets on the rise
According to the US Department of Veteran's Affairs, the percentage of vets with PTSD co-diagnosed with "cannabis use disorder" increased from 13 percent 2002, to 22.7 percent in 2014. In 2014, more than 40,000 veterans with PTSD were diagnosed with cannabis use disorder. But the term "cannabis use disorder" simply means a patient craves, and develops tolerance for, the drug - not that they aren't getting any positive effects from it.
According to Safe Access Now Chief Scientist Dr. Jahan Marcu, cannabis seems to help with the night terrors, flashbacks, and uncontrolled emotional processing that many vets with PTSD experience.
Marcu told Civilized that, in controlled studies, "veterans who were labelled as having a 'cannabis use disorder' actually responded better to emotional stimuli, and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when challenged compared to non-cannabis users."
Why cannabis works
Vets, clearly, continue to use cannabis for PTSD because it's effective - with anecdotal evidence now supported by a growing body of research.
"It works on the body's endocannabinoid system in five ways," according to Marcu. "It helps you to eat, sleep, relax, forget, and protect your body. In relation to PTSD, how cannabis is particularly useful is with the 'forgetting' part. If I remembered every face I saw today on the subway, my head would explode."
"Your body needs a system to get rid of information that is no longer useful, or harmful to you. In some situations, you cannot forget or adjust to painful circumstances."
Many vets say cannabis smooths that adjustment, helping them recall traumatic memories with decreased frequency and allowing them to function.
Laws have yet to catch up
The growing number of vets being prescribed legal cannabis suggests its value within the therapeutic toolkit used to treat PTSD is becoming more widely accepted.
"What we can say is that no study has conclusively shown any significant harm to vets with PTSD that are using cannabis," says Marcu. "Studies looked for it - and what they found instead was better stress management."
But until laws change to reflect our evolving understanding of cannabis and PTSD, the drug that offers many vets their best chance of healing could, for now, also place an incredible burden on themselves and their loved ones.